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What is identity?

It is essential to understand the importance of identity to young people and support them to celebrate the unique things which make them, them.

Identity can mean different things to different young people. It might be about their social circle, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, where they live, what music they listen to, religion or just feeling like they don’t fit in.  If a child has lots of questions or concerns about their identity that are not answered, this can lead to feelings of loneliness or worry and have a negative impact on their mental health. 

Identity can be a confusing thing for young people to understand and it might make them feel lonely or isolated. These feelings of confusion may manifest in behaviours such as anger, frustration, becoming solitary, engaging in risky situations, or socialising with people who may have a negative influence. These behaviours are all a form of communication and can be a result of the young person struggling with their identity and sense of self 

Some things you can do to help:

  • Talk to young people in a non-judgemental and accepting way. 

  • Ask them questions about how they feel and what you can do to support them. 

  • Ensure the young person knows they are valued and loved for who they are. 

  • In shared spaces, ensure displays and resources celebrate and include a diverse spectrum of identities to show the wide variety of people in the world. 

  • Educate yourself about the impact of identity on mental health. 

  • Create and embed a strong RSHE/PSHE curriculum and have clear policies in place. 

  • In learning spaces, explore with all young people about the importance of supporting each other’s differences and the law relating to Protected Characteristics.  


There are three types of discrimination: direct discrimination, indirect discrimination and discrimination arising from disability. There are some really useful discrimination explanations and examples here. It is important to understand that just because a young person has a disability, has experienced racism or are part of the LGBTQ+ community, does not mean they will definitely experience a mental health condition.  The experiences they have of being treated differently from others can negatively impact their emotional health and wellbeing which can sometimes lead to a mental health problem. It is important that you understand what rights are protected by law. 

Your right to be you is protected by law

Protected Characteristics are:

  • age 

  • gender reassignment 

  • being married or in a civil partnership 

  • being pregnant or on maternity leave 

  • disability 

  • race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin 

  • religion or belief 

  • sex 

  • sexual orientation 

The Equality Act 2010 is a law that protects people with these characteristics from discrimination (i.e. being treated unfairly for being different).

Here’s a list of different areas that young people sometimes have questions or concerns about, and some helpful websites where you can find out more: 


Race can mean a person’s colour, nationality, ethnicity or citizenship and it’s a protected characteristic in law under the Equality Act 2010 in in England, Scotland and Wales, and the Race Relations Order 1997in Northern Ireland.   

It is important to recognise and celebrate the beauty of all races and encourage young people to understand what makes them, them. It might mean supporting a young person to learn more about their family tree or embrace aspects of their culture through storytelling, food, dance, and music. The world is made up of so many diverse identities and we grow together by better understanding the beauty of ourselves and others.  

Racial discrimination or racism is when someone is treated differently because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, or colour. It is illegal to discriminate or treat someone different because of their race.  

Racism can include:  

  • being called racist names or being sent insulting messages or threats 

  • having your belongings damaged or having to see racist graffiti 

  • personal attacks, including violence or assault 

  • being left out, treated differently or excluded 

  • people making assumptions about you because of your colour, race or culture 

  • being made to feel like you have to change how you look 

  • racist jokes, including jokes about your colour, nationality race or culture. 

All the various forms of racism and discrimination can lead to an erosion of self-confidence and lead to self-doubt, making young people question their identity and their place in the world. The emotions which come from going through these experiences can have negative effects on well-being. 

It is important that we understand as professionals, the huge impact racism can have on mental health and ensure we continue to educate ourselves and create safe spaces for young people to disclose any racism they may be experiencing. 

Some useful links and resources are as follows:

Equality Everyone’s Business – Anti-Racism Toolkit for Schools

Talking to children about racism | NSPCC

Identity | The East Midlands Education Support Service ( 

Anti-racism and mental health in schools e-learning | Training | Anna Freud Centre 

Disability and Special Educational Needs (SEND)

For a young person it is important for them to have a sense of themselves and their identity as it can provide them with a feeling of belonging. Often identity can come from relating to people who they feel they have things in common with or feel similar to. Having a disability or a Special Educational Need can affect a young person’s sense of identity as they may feel ‘different’ or believe that they are viewed as different by others. 

It is also important to recognise hidden disabilities. For example, someone might have sensory loss, autism or long-term conditions such as diabetes. Disabled and non-disabled people have the right to be respected and feel included.  A person with a hidden disability might need the noise or light levels to be considered, be given more time to do something or take more breaks. Or they might need others to think carefully about how they communicate and describe things. 

The children in your setting who have a disability, or a Special Educational Need may have always been aware of their disability or it may have become more apparent to them later on in their childhood or teenage years, but it is important to remind them that every single person is different and has something which makes them unique. They may be feeling like an outsider, and perhaps other people have views on them based on unhelpful stereotypes which can lead to misconceptions and even bullying, which in turn can have consequences on their mental health. 

Focusing on individual differences and identity as part of your RSHE/PSHE curriculum and having clear policies in place can prevent bullying and harmful stereotypes and promote acceptance and understanding. In addition to this, teaching all children about neurodiversity could be a helpful way to breakdown barriers and promote empathy. 

Often individuals cope by masking symptoms and pretending to be someone they are not, but this can be exhausting and where they will find that they are at odds with their true identity. Encouraging every individual to be their authentic and wonderful self will provide relief and can support better emotional health and wellbeing.  

Some useful links and resources are as follows:

Living with a disability | Childline


Autism and mental health (

Online Coping Skills Course


Sexual orientation and gender expression are an important part of a young person’s identity. Some young people may be unsure of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity where others will have been clear about it from a young age. Expressing and exploring gender identity is a normal part of development. 

Identity provides a sense of self. With regards to LGBTQ+, being accepted by others is important for mental wellbeing. Providing a safe and supportive environment in settings such as schools and colleges will improve outcomes in relation to mental health issues for LGBTQ+ young people. 

Providing a safe space for young people to speak about their questions or challenges and provide them with a voice when it comes to how educational settings can help, will go a long way in improving self esteem and confidence, and therefore, identity. Knowing that staff are allies and can be relied upon to listen is also a powerful tool when it comes to empowering young people. 

Whilst anyone can experience a mental health problem, for young people who identify as LGBTQ+ such an issue is more likely to develop, not because of their identity itself but rather as a consequence of experiences such as exclusion, discrimination, stigma, prejudice, rejection, isolation etc. Due to this, LGBTQ+ young people are more likely to experience stress and fear in school than their non-LGBTQ+ peers.  An educational environment where they feel emotionally and physically safe and their identity is respected and embraced (for example by using their correct pronouns) will act as a protective factor,  and decrease the risk of mental health problems developing. 

Embracing their LGBTQ+ identity can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing, increasing confidence and self-acceptance whilst also enabling a sense of community and belonging. Addressing the issues faced and being aware of their rights (Equality Act 2010) will increase a young person’s sense of identity and provide them with clarity. Supporting young people with this, can only help to create positivity with regards to their sense of identity. 

Some useful links and resources are as follows: 

LGBTQ+ children and young people : Mentally Healthy Schools

What do you need to know about LGBTQ+ children and young people? | Stonewall

Resources – Nottingham Together, Let’s Talk!

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Related Topics

Here are some related mental health topics

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Bullying is repeated behaviour intended to hurt someone emotionally or physically. Bullying is often aimed at certain people because of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation or any other aspect such as appearance or disability.

Self Harm

Self-harm, or self-injury, describes a wide range of things people deliberately do to themselves that appear to cause some kind of physical hurt. It can be very hard for parents and carers to know about - or witness - self-harming behaviour in their children.

Self-Care for Mental Health

It’s OK not to be OK.

Just like our physical fitness, we need to look after our mental health to feel good. When you’re not feeling OK, it’s OK to talk about this and ask for help.

Body Image

Self-esteem and Body Image

Body image is how we think and feel about ourselves physically, and how we believe others see us. There are lots of different ways we can think about our bodies and the way we look. For example, sometimes you might like parts of your body and be happy with how you look.